2 November 2013
The story of “little Alonso”, as 5-year-old Grand Prix aspirant Rashid Al Dhaheri has been dubbed, is a heart-warming aside to the action due to happen at the Yas Marina Circuit today.
But the young Emirati is also the embodiment of one of the lesser-known goals behind the original decision to host the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
With the city due to bask in international attention this afternoon, few would quibble that hosting the race has helped raise awareness of Abu Dhabi and sent a powerful message that the city can set big goals and then deliver them on time.
But the longer-term aspiration of those behind the decision to have the race in Abu Dhabi was always to foster a home-grown champion.
As Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the UAE’s leading motorsports champion and one of those involved in the bid for an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, put it: “We need to have a local champion. We must support young Emiratis. We will produce the right person and the right driver from here. If you have a hero, there will be interest in the sport.”
Rashid was only a baby when that comment was made, but he exemplified the sort of raw talent that needs support. On Friday, Rashid had the chance to get tips for success from Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
He has already completed his first year of competitive kart racing, which Alonso explained was also the pathway that led him to two Formula One world championships.
In its way, Alonso’s career is a template for how the UAE will produce its first Formula One champion. He started karting at the age of three in his native Spain with his father acting as his mechanic. Four consecutive Spanish championships, and a world karting championship, led him to a stint in Formula 3000, then a place in an F1 team.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Arguably, Alonso faced bigger challenges than Rashid will face. The Spaniard’s family was of modest means and his career might have fizzled if not for early karting success leading to sponsorships.
The UAE’s resources and commitment to developing local talent ought to make the path easier for those with the skill and desire to win.
Who knows, with such backing and a little luck, maybe one day Rashid will emulate Alonso’s many achievements.